When I previewed Painkiller a few short months ago, I felt an incredible promise in the multiplayer but didn’t think the singleplayer aspect was at all inspired. Yes, the big bosses are cool, but they’ve been done before and the levels seemed scarcely capable of being less interesting. After all, you walk into an area, get locked off, kill anything that moves, and walk into the next area.
Of course, it’s somewhat unfair to make that characterization – any game, when distilled down to its most basic elements, can be summed up in one boring sentence. Yet from the alpha and even the demos, there seemed to be little hope for the singleplayer aspect of Painkiller. You’d keep your range from your enemies and kill them. Get mobbed, and you’d die, but otherwise you were generally fine until the boss fight.
However, prolonged exposure has led me to re-think my earlier presumptions about the game. The singleplayer is fun. Simple, yes, but not necessarily simplistic. Like a good puzzle game or arcade shooter, on lower difficulty levels you start to develop your own challenges. “How can I get through this section without using too much ammo or health? How many gold coins and souls can I collect?” It is, in the words of Warren Spector, emergent gameplay. This style of play is spurred by the challenges put forth in the level selection screen, which say that you need to collect X souls or Y gold, or finish with at least Z kills while in demon mode.
The player discovers new tricks as he goes along. As you collect tarot cards (power ups) by completing the challenges, you look at the cost of placing these cards – often in the hundreds of gold coins – and wonder just how you’ll ever be able to afford it. Then, in a random fight with a lot of rocket fire, you might spot a strange looking gold coin on the ground. You pick it up and wonder how it appeared there. Maybe you ask as a friend, maybe you experiment, but eventually you learn that if you bounce the corpse of a fallen foe three or four times in mid-air, he’ll drop a special coin that’s worth a fortune. Suddenly, in addition to simply killing your foes while collecting the coins from broken items, and souls from dead enemies, you see how much extra gold you can earn with the juggling trick.
Then you start taking risks in battle, juggling foes before you’re done with their friends, because corpses disappear quickly and you need as much gold as you can. Of course, if you juggle too well, the corpse might be in the air when it decomposes, leaving the soul out of reach. In a simple game like this, it’s much easier to appreciate the subtler gameplay mechanics at work than in a more complex title like Splinter Cell.